Fast Talk: My Toughest Assignment

You learn the most by taking on the most difficult problems. Five leaders describe the toughest jobs of their careers.

Donny Deutsch

Chairman and Chief executive officer
Deutsch Inc.
New York, New York

I learned an incredibly valuable lesson early in my career. I was 26. At the time, the agency was tiny; we were putting out print ads for small accounts. We certainly weren't in a position to go after the New York/New Jersey/Connecticut Pontiac Dealers account when it came under review. It was a $3 million account, and we had no car experience and no television experience.

How did we get it? Every hour, over a 24-hour period, we sent used car parts to the home of the marketing guy in charge of the pitch. We sent him a fender with a tag on it: "Talk to Deutsch -- we'll protect your rear end." We sent a headlight with a message: "We have bright ideas." We even delivered a steering wheel -- "We'll steer you in the right direction," the note read. By the end of the day, the guy's entire driveway was filled with used car parts.

We got into the pitch and won the business. It showed me that when a situation is far out of your reach, you really have to go so above and beyond that you obligate people to take a look at you.

That approach can backfire too. Five years later, we tried to get into the Saab pitch, but they wouldn't have us. So we had a brick wall constructed and delivered it to client headquarters with a note: "We'll drive through walls for you." We ended up driving the client up the wall. He saw it and was like, What the hell...? Get out.

We've stopped doing stupid advertising tricks. Today, we're a $2.5 billion agency with big accounts and even bigger stakes. But we still zig when everybody else zags. You have to surprise, charm, and engage people. The riskiest proposition of all is sticking to the status quo, especially in conservative times.

Alice Waters

Founder, owner, and executive chef
Chez Panisse
Berkeley, California

I'm a perfectionist. I'm used to running the show. But back in 1990, I met my match. Working with her was probably my toughest assignment -- and one of my most rewarding.

A group of Bay Area restaurateurs decided to put on an AIDS benefit, and we also decided to collaborate with lots of people from outside the restaurant business -- friends from the worlds of art, film, and music. One of those people was the Japanese designer Eiko Ishioka, who was in charge of creating the overall experience for the event. My job was to be the go-between for Eiko and the rest of the steering committee.

I had never worked side by side with someone who was more of a perfectionist than I am. She made me look at everything so closely. For example, when the ties for the 300 or so aprons for the waitstaff didn't dye precisely the shade of red that Eiko had specified, I had to act fast. I recruited a team of seamstresses to take off all of the ties and put on new ones. The tricky part was to find people who could do the job right for next to nothing. This was a benefit, after all. It was a constant struggle to do things really well on a shoestring budget.

In the end, the benefit was a runaway success, and the experience of organizing it with Eiko taught me how to improvise, how to let go, without compromising quality.

Improvisation is what cooking is all about. At the restaurant, we set the menu based on what's available that day. Food is alive, and it's changing all the time.

Improvisation is also the key ingredient to collaboration. If you can work together and master the art of improvisation, there's no such thing as too many cooks in the kitchen.

Frank Gehry

Founder
Gehry PARTNERS LLP
Los Angeles, California

My toughest assignment was a lesson in the power of tough love. The Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles started out like all of my assignments: I was trying to build the greatest building of my life. But I don't march in with a cape and hand over the model. A building can only be great if the people who commission it believe in the design and the process of making the design come to life.

Back in 1989, when I first won the design competition, the pervasive image was that I was a wild card, that I would design the place upside down and plaster it with corrugated metal. I overcame those perceptions. I listened to the Disney family and demonstrated that I could use fine materials that were right for a concert hall.

But every great building pushes boundaries -- which also means pushing the client. Things got hairy when my design language got beyond what a traditional architectural firm could do, and we had to create the technology to create the building. (For example, to create the building's curved walls, we were employing software that was used to build airplanes.) Things started to fall apart, and I didn't have the guts to quit. The project was killed, and it was a public disaster. A few years later, the project was resurrected because Guggenheim Bilbao was built, and the people in Los Angeles loved Bilbao. They wanted my Disney Hall design.

But money was harder to raise this time around, and the client eventually started going down the same path as before. To save money, they wanted to hire an outside firm to do very technical drawings -- a strategy that I knew wouldn't work. This time, I refused to give in, and we ended up doing the drawings. This month, 14 years after the original commission, the concert hall will open its doors to the world, and the fat lady will sing.

Jeffrey Sachs

Director
The Earth Institute at Columbia University
New York, New York

Poland, 1989. It was that country's first attempt to make the transition from communism to democratic capitalism, and I was the country's economic adviser. The biggest threat was chaos. Poland had a moribund economy, a foreign-debt crisis, and what I came to call socialist hyperinflation. Everything was so uncertain.

Vision was key. I took the slogan of the revolution -- The Return to Europe -- and used it as my compass for economic reform. I told the Solidarity leadership that there was a way out of the maelstrom: You can stop hyperinflation and make the transition to capitalism and a democratic government. They were worried about the foreign debt. Ignore it, I said. Send a postcard to the creditors and say, "Thanks very much, we're not repaying the debt." (They eventually did that, politely, and a substantial portion of the debt was canceled.)

I'll be honest: I improvised. In one very dramatic night, racing to meet an overnight deadline, a colleague and I came up with a 10-page plan of action for the transformation from communism to capitalism. When problems seemed insurmountable, my solution was to ignore them by assuming them away. I don't know where that sense of confidence came from. I walked into the situation truly knowing at a gut level that there was no reason life had to be as bad as it was. It wasn't a natural disaster. It was human made and therefore human correctable.

The experience spoiled me; it made me believe that clear mandates and ideas backed by good energy will overcome all problems. Now, it doesn't always work out so well; it didn't in Russia. But it gave me the confidence to take on my current assignment: tackling financing to fight AIDS and other disease epidemics in poor countries. That's a tough assignment too.

Alec Gores

Founder and chairman
Gores Technology Group
Los Angeles, California

Once you've figured out how to turn around something like the Learning Company, which we acquired from Mattel, you feel like you could fix any broken company in America.

We've been acquiring companies for nearly 20 years. Under one roof, the Learning Company had virtually every problem we've ever encountered. It was losing $1.5 million a day. Meanwhile, nobody was talking to anybody; everyone had forgotten about the customer; decisions were based on gross margins that weren't real; product channels were overstuffed, and excess inventory was being counted as revenue; there were too many facilities; the list goes on.

It was a colossal and complex mess. The company was a combination of 70 prior acquisitions. To come up with an effective plan, we needed accurate information. So we talked to people at every level. Second- and third-tier employees often know what's going on and how to fix it; they just don't know how to execute.

But most nerve-wracking of all was the attention surrounding our work. We'd never done such a high-profile deal before. The stakes were high, but I didn't realize how high until we signed the deal. The phone rang off the hook; the press was all over the story. And everyone was saying the same thing: Is this guy out of his mind? We were on the hot seat and had to get the job done.

We did. Within 70 days, the Learning Company was turning an operating profit. It was my biggest deal ever and by far the messiest. But I came to learn that really big problems at really big companies often present advantages. You have more at stake, but you also have a lot more room and money to make things happen. And the problems generally are the same, whether they're in a $50 million company or a $1.5 billion company. Somewhere along the way, companies lose sight of their core business. Our job is to reconnect the company with its customers and start building value again.

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